He went from the humble role of clipping newspaper stories about the Los Angeles Rams and dutifully placing them into a team scrapbook, which was his first paid job in professional football, to becoming one of the most important, influential and recognized figures in the history of the game. The extraordinary saga of Alvin Pete Rozelle found him taking the rough edges off the sport and leading it into the boardrooms of corporate America.
He had few parallels in any business and was the most progressive, eloquent and productive of all commissioners. A visionary who was imaginative, daring and innovative. Truly a public relations genius. Success would have been his in any calling.
Rozelle yes, a perfect fit for the times. A man who came from within the football structure, wise and tolerant, who probably could have gotten along with the devil if he had to, but failed with Al Davis, who ignored the NFL's rules and went his way in a blatant action that led to franchise migration and insurmountable problems. Even Rozelle's original team, the Rams, took leave of his native Los Angeles through the same element of defiance by a club owner.
The suave, conservatively tailored and rare-to-anger Rozelle died Friday night at the age of 70 from a brain tumor at the elaborate retirement home he built in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., for his wife, Carrie, and himself after leaving office in 1989.
He had an innate ability, most of the time, to quiet troubled waters, find a solution to problems and, if pressed, implement a powerful battle plan.
The Super Bowl will always carry the Rozelle signature and, henceforth, we respectfully suggest the ball that's used in the game should be inscribed with his name as a perpetual tribute. How far would the NFL have come without him? He took television and made it a vehicle for pro football, using the vast exposure it offered to create unprecedented popularity and make millionaires out of owners who didn't have a helmet to spit in.
We go back to Rozelle's years as a publicity director of the Rams, when he was the team advance man and visited newspaper offices. It later evolved that he offered us the job as his chief assistant when he gained the commissionership and said in a letter, "writing flattering columns about me won't put off your decision; i want you to be with me to new york. as for salary, as i mentioned, it can be whatever you want." The reason we knew it was personal is that when he typed, it was characteristic of him to keep all letters in the lower case. A Rozelle idiosyncrasy.
At the time, 1960, the league was headquartered in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., near Philadelphia, and Rozelle quickly moved to a higher-profile location -- New York, the center of the mass-media network. He later formed a special division of the NFL to market souvenirs and apparel; organized a publishing house; established a firm for producing game films and highlights; and sold ABC on Monday night football after CBS and NBC said the idea wouldn't work.
His close friend and confidant, Sig Hyman of Baltimore, said in stirring tribute: "He was one of the brightest men I ever knew. If you had his word, it amounted to a guarantee. He had just incredible talent to look into the future and decide which direction to go. Words can't describe what he meant to me these many years of being close to him and observing his ethics and fairness. He always endeavored to do what was right."
At 5: 30 a.m. on the morning after his selection in 1960 as commissioner of the NFL, asleep in a suite at the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami Beach, he was awakened by a newspaper friend from Baltimore, who called to inform him, "Just trying to break you in right." He recognized the voice, laughed and submitted to an interview at that ungodly hour in his first full day on the job.
Another reporter, somewhat naive, had asked him the evening before, after his appointment after 23 rounds of votes, whether he regarded himself as a "compromise candidate." There was a split among the club owners and the position would have gone to Marshall Leahy, an attorney for the 49ers, had he not insisted that the league office be in San Francisco. The vote for Rozelle was 7-4, with one team abstaining.
Rozelle, when he was growing up in Compton, outside Los Angeles, was on the school newspaper and campaigned that an outfielder on the baseball team be afforded all-city honors. The player in question was Duke Snider, who later made the Baseball Hall of Fame, and there was Rozelle, seated in Cooperstown, N.Y., on the afternoon in 1980 when his lifelong friend received the highest testimonial the game bestows.
After service as an enlisted man on a Navy mine sweeper in World War II, he became an errand boy for the Rams, taking care of the newspaper clippings, and ultimately, became publicity director at the University of San Francisco, which had an unbeaten football team and three players, Gino Marchetti, Ollie Matson and Bob St. Clair, who ultimately went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame that Rozelle opened in 1963.
The tall "boy commissioner," as he was called, since he assumed the job at the age of 33, had a fresh-scrubbed appearance, enjoyed a social drink or two and was a heavy-duty cigarette smoker. He showed an almost blind loyalty to friends, a revered quality that in this era of selfishness and individualism has
become too quickly passe. It's sad to relate, but some NFL owners he perceived as being close to him never called or visited after he left office, even when they were in the vicinity of where he lived in Southern California. This hurt, but he didn't complain or speak harshly about them. Rozelle was too positive to deal in resentment or vilification.
He didn't reveal it to the public, but he had a hard exterior, as
demonstrated when Carroll Rosenbloom, then owner of the Rams, tried to have him impeached for making him turn over draft choices to the Detroit Lions for tampering with wide receiver Ron Jesse. The harangue from Rosenbloom and his indictment of Rozelle at a league meeting took up the better part of an hour. Finally, Rozelle asked whether he had anything else to say.
Rosenbloom said no. The other owners, listening to the denunciation, thought Rozelle would reply in kind. But the berated commissioner, seated at the head of the room, pulled up his sleeve, looked at his watch and announced, "We will now take a 90-minute recess for lunch." He had merely let Rosenbloom talk himself out and then silenced him without a word of response.
There were moments of deep regret for Rozelle during his almost three decades as NFL czar, such as having to suspend Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions for placing bets on their own teams and other games. Also being forced to discipline Paul Brown, then the Cincinnati Bengals' owner, for criticizing another NFL owner (Art Modell, then of the Cleveland Browns) in an autobiography, and, similarly, having to fine George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears, for insubordination, a point Halas later said was justified.
Rozelle, regardless of circumstance, carried himself in an exemplary manner. There were times when his "old friend in Baltimore" was in opposition -- like when he suggested to us that we rescind a story about Edward Bennett Williams and thereby eliminate a threatened lawsuit; or to soften a stance against the vTC unsavory practice of some owners forcing regular-season customers to buy exhibition tickets.
But that never changed the relationship. His 29-year reign as NFL head exceeded that of every commissioner before him, be it in football, basketball, baseball or hockey. A man of style, grace and decency. He shaped and polished pro football, giving it a sheen and acceptability it never had before. Living or dead, he's synonymous with the game.
Pub Date: 12/07/96